A major San Diego School District phishing attack has been discovered. The phishing attack stands out from the many similar phishing attacks on schools due to the extent of accounts that were compromised, the amount of data that was potentially obtained, and the length of time it took for the data breach to be detected.
According to a recent breach announcement, the login credentials of around 50 district employees were obtained by the attacker. It is not unusual for multiple accounts to be breached in school phishing attacks. Once access is gained to one account, it can be used to send internal phishing emails to other staff members. Since those emails come from within, they are more likely to be trusted and less likely to be detected. Investigations into similar phishing attacks often reveal many more email accounts have been compromised than was initially thought, although 50 sets of compromised credentials is particularly high.
Those accounts were compromised over a period of 11 months. The San Diego School District phishing attack was first detected in October 2018 after staff alerted the district’s IT department to phishing emails that had been received. Multiple reports tipped off the IT department that an ongoing cyberattack was occurring and there may have been a data breach.
The investigation revealed the credentials obtained by the attacker provided access to the district’s network services, which included access to the district’s database of staff and student records. The school district is the second largest in California and serves over 121,000 students each year. The database contained records going back to the 2008/2009 school year. In total, the records of more than 500,000 individuals were potentially obtained by the hacker. Given the length of time that the hacker had access to the network, data theft is highly probable.
The data potentially obtained was considerable. Student information compromised included names, addresses, dates of birth, telephone numbers, email addresses, enrollment and attendance information, discipline incident information, health data, legal notices on file, state student ID numbers, emergency contact information, and Social Security numbers. Compromised staff information also included salary information, health benefits data, paychecks and pay advices, tax data, and details of bank accounts used for direct deposits.
Data could be accessed from January 2018 to November 2018. While it is typical for unauthorized access to be immediately blocked upon discovery of a breach, in this case the investigation into the breach was conducted prior to shutting down access. This allowed the identity of the suspected hacker to be determined without tipping off the hacker that the breach had been detected. The investigation into the breach is ongoing, although access has now been blocked and affected individuals have been notified. Additional cybersecurity controls have now been implemented to block future attacks.
School district phishing attacks are commonplace. School districts often lack the resources of large businesses to devote to cybersecurity. Consequently, cyberattacks on school districts are much easier to pull off. Schools also store large volumes of sensitive data of staff and students, which can be used for a wide range of malicious purposes. The relative ease of attacks and a potential big payday for hackers and phishers make schools an attractive target.
The San Diego School District phishing attack is just one of many such attacks that have been reported this year. During tax season at the start of 2018, many school districts were targeted by phishers seeking the W-2 forms of employees. It is a similar story every year, although the threat actors behind these W-2 phishing attacks have been more active in the past two years.
In December this year, Cape Cod Community College suffered a different type of phishing attack. The aim of that attack was to convince staff to make fraudulent wire transfers. At least $800,000 was transferred to the attackers’ accounts in that attack.
These attacks clearly demonstrate the seriousness of the threat of phishing attacks on school districts and highlights the importance of implementing robust cybersecurity protections to protect against phishing.
If you want to improve your defenses against phishing, contact the TitanHQ team today for further information on anti-phishing solutions for schools.